Relapse Theatre schools wannabe funny people

Midtown venue gives aspiring improvisers their shot

A Friday night in June found me holding the leash of an enormous German shepherd in a back room of the Relapse Theatre. I was joining the live movie-mockery show Cineprov to make fun of Cujo as a benefit for the German Shepherd Rescue Association, and Cineprov organizer Larry Johnson asked me to watch his dog while he welcomed the audience.

It was the third time I'd been a guest mocker at Cineprov, each time performing in a different cozy space at the Relapse Theatre, a former church and homeless shelter on 14th Street. I wouldn't call myself a performer, but making snarky remarks about bad movies from the back of a makeshift cinema fits my comfort zone.

Cujo was rough going, though, and while Johnnson quipped at a snappy rate, my jokes got better responses from my fellow Cineprovisers than the paying customers. I tried not to panic when long scenes passed without my muse providing one-liners. Was that flop-sweat on my brow, or just a sign of anemic air conditioning?

I can take a little comfort from Relapse Theatre's encouraging attitude toward wannabe comics and improvisers. "We see ourselves as a place where talent comes from, and where anyone can take an opportunity to hop on stage for a chance to perform," says Shellie Schmals, Relapse Theatre's community affairs director.

Cineprov is one of more than a dozen autonomous comedy groups that consider Relapse their home theater. Drift downstairs past the full bar and you'll find the recently renovated, cave-like basement theater, which seats 125 people comfortably. This is where aspiring funny people come to find and hone their comedic voices. Since 2006, Relapse has presented an increasingly diverse lineup of comedy shows, from Automatic Improv's familiar brand of "Whose Line is It Anyway?" games to more innovative evenings like Writer's Block, an "improvised novel" that takes inspiration from the audience's favorite authors.

Owner and artistic director Bob Wood points to the improv show Richard Kickers (Tuesdays, 9:30 p.m.) as the prime example of Relapse's inclusive attitude. "It's like an open mic show for improv," says Wood, who looks a little like Norm Macdonald and projects a similar brand of unhurried intensity. "You don't have to be a performer. You can get on stage with people who've been doing comedy for 20 years. I think it's our most important group. I would let every other show go before I let Richard Kickers go."

Relapse can welcome and reward participation quickly. Six years ago, Schmals became a regular in Relapse's audience because a friend performed at the theater. "I had always wanted to be an actress, so I talked to Bob about it," she says. "I took an improv class on a Monday, and I was in a show the following Friday." Now Schmals applies her improv background as emcee for a new burlesque troupe, Minette Magnifique. Other Relapse alumni include Roswell's Groupmind Productions, which performed Improv Monster and other shows at Relapse for several years before relocating earlier in 2011.

Wood acknowledges that some of Relapse Theatre's groups are in raw stages of development: "All of the groups here are five years old or younger, and I would say most of the groups are adolescent. Each company features a veteran performer or two, which is not always an accident."

For instance, Primetime Wednesdays at 8 p.m. offers a two-act show. For the first half, a group of twentysomethings called Laugh Track improvises an episode of a sitcom, and shows a tendency to repeat variations on the same jokes until the spontaneity runs out. The second half presents a longer, improvised dramedy from the comedy team of Jay Revis and Craig Zeiss, both in their 40s, who impressively alternate between silly gags and character-driven pathos. A major subplot in one performance, for instance, depicted a grown son competing with the memory of his deceased twin sister for his elderly father's affections. And it had laughs.

"The members of Laugh Track got together as part of an improv class series, and I taught one of the levels of the class," says Revis. "They look to us for mentoring at times, which Craig and I both enjoy, but they also have some experienced leadership within their group."

Relapse marks a new chapter in Wood's career. In the 1990s, he worked his way up at Whole World Theatre from volunteer to artistic director. He often stayed at the theater seven days a week, sleeping under the risers.

By November of 2004, however, the company became more structured than he liked. As Wood explains, tongue partially in cheek, "When I started out at Whole World, everyone was naked, smoking pot and playing bongos. By the end, they wanted us to punch time cards. I like to say that I left because I wanted to form Relapse."

According to Wood, he snuck into the abandoned building on 14th Street to give improv classes. "I started renting the parking lot before it was mine to rent, and used that money to rent the actual building and hold shows." In 2009, Wood purchased the property outright with a $2.8 million loan.

"I'm in a huge hole," he admits. He is adamant that Relapse will be a for-profit organization. "We'll never be a nonprofit. We've never done a fundraiser, nor will we. So it's all about money. Relapse relies solely on bar and ticket sales, but also on workshops and private classes. We're always looking for the right people to come in and invest with us, but I don't think they exist."

Relapse didn't even advertise until this year, but word of mouth has given it a reputation as a place where established entertainers can experiment. Big name comedians such as Bobcat Goldthwait have performed at the company's Secret Show at 1 a.m. Saturday nights. "We're not booking these shows. They've heard that Relapse is a good place, so they don't have to do their club set when they come here," says Wood.

Wood envisions renovating the venue to include nine performing spaces, as well as a restaurant, a coffeehouse and classrooms, but those are long-term goals with no timetable. Over July Fourth weekend, he plans to relaunch the company's website along with Relapse University, which features a variety of classes in stand-up comedy, scripted theater and improv forms.

Wood makes Relapse's business plan sound more focused on idealism than sustainability. "People ask, 'What's your business model?' It's about being nice to people, and it's really sad that's revolutionary. You can bring a thousand people to your show, but if you're a jerk to people, we don't care, you're gone." Wood's upbeat attitude can connect him to new people, like Charles Garcia Islas, whom he hired to paint part of the building, and now runs the stage lights while improvising as part of the Friday night troupe 2 Girls 3 Eyes.

Relapse admirably gives newcomers the freedom to fail, but whether Wood's faith in human nature will pay off seems uncertain. As long as laughter is contagious, Relapse could keep attracting enough curious audiences to keep the air conditioning on.

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